Poetry & backstory

My primary interests on this site are consciousness, nature, philosophy, the arts, and poetry in particular. Recently, poetry has been taking a backseat to other concerns; but poetry has a way of constantly asserting itself into my consciousness–of whatever that may consist (see previous posts for wrestling with that concept).

I have been reading poetry but not writing about it much and not composing at a productive clip, though I am not feeling “writer’s block.” I have, instead, allowed other events in my life to take over space formerly reserved for writing poems. This is neither bad nor good–it is just the state of affairs at present. Recently, a discussion with a friend brought up an aspect of poetry-writing that I have not spent much time thinking about; and the reason I haven’t is probably because I was warned away from the practice long ago when I first began to write verse.

The practice is “explaining the poem.” Of course, in theory the poem should do its own explaining, and if it requires too much prose telling, then it ought to be fiction or memoir or history or something other than a poem. That’s what my mentors and teachers imparted to me about poetry (all hail received wisdom!), and I do not disagree with this tenet–but having taught classes that introduce people to poetry, let me add a few cautions and qualifiers.

See, there’s explaining, and there’s explaining. One version of explaining the poem is to tell what inspired you, how you started to write it, what you were aiming for in terms of purpose, what you intended to “do” in the poem, and what each of the references means as relates to your life, the nation, culture, religion, or a love affair. If that is what the poet does before reading the poem aloud or presenting it upon the page, then the poet is doing all of the poem’s work for it. Too much information.

If the audience does not understand or appreciate the poem without this sort of explanation, then you have either a failed poem or a failed audience.

Then there are forms of interpretation and analysis by critics, reviewers, or fans; these texts or discussions can be immensely interesting and fruitful but do not involve the poet him or herself, so they do not really qualify as “explanations.” This process is what we try to teach students to do in university literary analysis coursework. Sometimes we encounter lackluster or lazy audiences in the classroom: people who want the professor or the textbook to do all the work of understanding poems for them. Poems are complex, like polymer molecules or neurological wiring. Not easy to explain.

But there are explanations of a kind that can be valuable, even if they are fabishop lowell ltrsr from necessary when one encounters a really terrific poem. There are reasons to learn the backstory of a poem, if such a thing exists for that particular poem (not all poems have one). Anyway, it may be worth asking the poet about it, if she is still living and can answer or if the answer may be deduced from archival materials. We have learned the backstories of a few Elizabeth Bishop poems, just taking one well-known poet as an example (see Words in Air); the stories–in this case, letters–do not necessarily help readers interpret a poem or even understand it any better, but the stories remind us that the poem was initially embodied in the brain of another human being who was undergoing and observing experiences–or leaping into realms of imagination.

More about why that’s a good thing, and more about the embodiment of the human brain, in later posts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Renewal, work

One never can know when work will arrive. By the term work, I mean what some people call “inspiration” but which, for me, is more work than it is a shower of divine gifts from the Muse. The past week brought an uptick in poetry drafts, as well as the acceptance of a poem by a publication I admire. All the more reason, therefore, to continue the process of working on the composition of creative writing.

I wonder if there’s an urgency pushing me to write new poems–the semester begins this week, and once I am teaching and tutoring again, time to write seems to evaporate–so I had better get cracking! Or it could be my response to the losses about which I have recently written, supposing that there is merit to the practice of writing as a way of healing or the writing cure (and I do suppose there is merit).

Maybe, just maybe, one might presuppose a connection with the arrival of a new year. Renewal. That would be arbitrary and perhaps subconscious; but the possibility remains. I can consider myself in the not-quite-midwinter renewal period, wrestling with potential poems that might turn out to be essays or blog posts or total duds or, if I am diligent and analytical and compassionate and lucky, completed poems.

Wintry hours ahead

Winter arrives…in red & white

~

Wish me luck. And hard work. I don’t mind being urged toward hard work; it’s the only way renewal really ever happens.

Focus

On what do I focus when I write a poem?

This question has occurred to me before, usually under the guise of someone asking the ever-vague “What inspires you to write?” Focus differs from inspiration. For me, focus seems to derive from observation and is a process of discovering meaning.

Focus helps me understand what it is I’m experiencing and to decide how to express it. I focus when I need to make decisions; in the case of writing a poem, the decision might be one of craft approach or of imagery, or a realization that the poem needs a turn to create tension or resolution. What is the hub of the poem, the real kernel at its core? To make a poem “work,” I have to have a sense of what that might be.

This type of emphasis is a form of concentration. I think we learn from focusing; it teaches the value of close study, a skill needed for analysis. It can also be a reminder of what is outside the area of attention. Focus needs context, or it ends up as navel-gazing.

For a visual example, consider Andy Goldsworthy‘s “Rain Shadows,” which are among the most transitory of his ephemeral works.

The opposite of making a snow angel, in these conceptual art pieces–and he would object to me calling them by that term–the artist lies on a sidewalk and waits until a light rain falls just enough to leave his figure on the ground. Of course, in no time, the rain fills in the figure, so he documents the “shadow” with a photograph.

Goldsworthy talks about the process, in a recent interview with Terry Gross (see link below).

I just concentrate on the rain. I’ve learned so much about rain — the different kinds of rains, the rhythms of rains. And people will say, “Oh, why don’t you just use a hose pipe?” That would be totally pointless. The point is not just to make the shadow, it’s to understand the rain that falls and the relationship with rain and the different rhythms of different rainfalls.

The “art” in Goldsworthy’s rain shadows–he also does this with snowfall–consists in a focus, a learning, a process that the viewer cannot participate in. Which is kind of weird. Unless, of course, seeing his rain shadows prompts other people to try making them, during which they will learn about rain’s rhythms and varieties.

In this way, Goldsworthy encourages focus and close attention to the world in which we live. I think I will file that under “inspiration.”

 

 

Parenthood & writing

My life, in my role as parent, has lately trumped my reading-&-writing time. This happens periodically and is one of the challenges–one might suggest hindrances–of being a writer who has children.

My children are grown, yet the occasional interferences continue. I rush to note that these interruptions can be marvelous; June has been pleasantly subsumed in the marriage festivities of my youngest. My blog plays a decided second fiddle to family. Or third fiddle. Or maybe just a fiddle that sits in the closet for months.

The recent New York Times Sunday Book Review offers two delightful essays on how parenthood affects writers: the columns by James Parker and Mohsin Hamid speak for me on how parenthood has informed these authors’ “writing life.” There is a difference, though it may be only one of small degree, between real life and the writing life. These men demonstrate the interaction, inspiration, and interference well, so I will let their words stand in for mine today. Please do click the link and read the essays.

Meanwhile, I observe with joy and a mixture of feelings (and a certain amount of preparation and planning and organizing) as one of my best beloveds chooses a lifetime partner and the two of them head off together into a shared life. I will be on the periphery. Which is as it should be, I suppose.

Many blessings, daughter.

Image

 

Reverberations

Elegant words–and urgent ones. Lee Upton’s book of essays Swallowing the Sea offers the following passages, which are resonating with me today:

“How can we live in the midst of a reality that outpaces our ability to comprehend it? How can the ancient springs of poetry–rhythmic language shaped to be remembered, language that often assumes nature as an inspiration–survive in circumstances that disintegrate memory and nature…?

“Poetry demands that we…actively attend to both the shapes of mayhem and the shapes of controlled order as they are enacted in language. That is, in poetry more than in any other verbal genre, readers bring an expectation that not only do all elements matter down to the comma and the white space at the end of a line and between or within stanzas, but that each of these elements, no matter how widely arrayed, may tug at other elements and condition the whole. The poem is an echo chamber where we listen to the reverberations that otherwise dissolve into the white noise of anxiety.”

~

James Fenton has said, “The writing of a poem is like a child throwing stones into a mineshaft. You compose first, then you listen for the reverberation.”

~

 

waterfall

Story of an object

In a previous post, I quoted Edmund de Waal about the stories that objects can “tell” us. In his book, those objects were things made by human beings; the story of the netsuke was not separate from the stories of the people who acquired them. His book did not examine the stories of the people who sculpted the netsuke, as there was no way to trace them that would not have required years of research. A fiction writer or poet might speculate on the possibilities of the lives of the ‘makers,’ however. That is part of what creative writers do.

There are also those “natural” objects that surround us and which can tell stories–or inspire human beings to imagine and tell their stories. For example, every origin myth contains some aspect of telling the story of the earth or sun, stars or mountains, seas, skies, moon.

After some online discussion with artist and writer Deborah Barlow, I considered the story of an object as having tactile and temporal aspects in some cases, and the object as “residue” of an event–or life. Ephemera, correspondence, tokens…many potential stories.

And, of course, works of art. If you follow this blog at all regularly, or check the archives or the Art[s] tab/page, you can tell I think often about art, its stories, artists, and their stories.

For example, a journal or notebook that an artist or writer uses can be a tool, repository, memory-jogger, inspiration-minder, sketchbook, Rolodex

It occurred to me that my poetry journals, which I’ve been keeping for decades, contain potential stories/poems but are also objects with their own stories to tell–which may or may not be “my” stories, though they necessarily intersect with whatever my story is.

objects, stories

objects, stories

~
Some examples. Tactile, visual, textual.
Inspiration, possibly.

Images captured in several ways.

Necessary–yes. For me.

~

Where do your stories reside? What object or objects seem to require the act of story-making? By which I mean, which objects fire that urge in you?

Inspiration

The word “inspiration” is from the Latin inspiratio: to blow into, to inflame. I began musing on inspiration today while on a walk with Spouse and Dog, during which the idea of muse came up in conversation (with Spouse; Dog kept her own silent counsel). He observed that he had never had a muse and asked if I had ever had one. I said I cannot think of ever having a person serve as my muse, but perhaps other things have played that role.

“Isn’t a muse a person?” he asked. We discussed, then, the difference—as each of us saw it—between a muse and a mentor. He has had mentors at various stages of his life; I think most of us encounter someone along the way who serves as a sage, a guide, a teacher, or as a role model. That person certainly offers a kind of inspiration. A muse, however, seems to connote inspiration of a different character or quality from mentorship. The muse acts as trigger, someone or something whose mere presence elicits a creative urge. The muse inflames, blows on the spark of creativity and ignites it.

Richard Hugo’s book The Triggering Town is justifiably famous among creative writers, particularly poets, for its author’s sensitive explanation of a source for the creative process and his description of how inspiration percolates into the creative act. He uses the example of American towns that act as triggers for memories or conjure of specific details of place and personhood. The town becomes muse. In a similar way, works of ekphrastic poetry may employ art as muse (though not always). For other creative people, music provides that initial flicker of inspiration—which seems especially fitting, given the word “music” originates from the word for the Greek muses themselves: mousike techne “art of the muses” from mousa, “muse.”

Mousa itself derives from the ancient proto-indo-european linguistic base *mon-men-mn, most closely associated with the meaning “to think, to remember.” Inspiration, though we feel it emotionally, psychologically, even physically at times, takes us into our minds, where the creativity takes place and can be formulated into art.

Much of my inspiration over the years has come from what people tend to term “the natural world”—as if we humans were not a part of that. But other things spur my creativity, including art and things I read. Having finally completed Parfit’s Reasons and Persons, I am now consuming more easily-digestible fare and finding much to inflame my interests in Alberto Manguel’s 1995 book A History of Reading, which I highly recommend.

Perhaps I will later find time to discuss the joys and pitfalls of reading several books at once. Meanwhile, I plan to spend the last light of a late winter afternoon observing hawks and woodpeckers.

Kalliope or Calliope, Athenian-style, the muse of epic poetry.